In Of White Ashes, Constance Hays Matsuomoto and Kent Matsumoto tell the tales of two individuals and how their lives intertwine during one of the most horrific times in history: World War II. Based on the true stories of Mr. Matsumoto’s parents, this utterly captivating novel represents historical fiction at its finest, and most heartbreaking.
The novel begins with dual perspectives. The first concerns Ruby Ishimaru, a tenacious young woman whose world turns upside down in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor invasion. The second centers on Koji Matsuo, an ambitious young man making ends meet in war-time Hiroshima.
Ruby’s idyllic childhood is shattered by the death of her mother and her father’s subsequent remarriage. Subjected to physical and emotional abuse by her stepmother, she increasingly draws inward in an effort to protect herself. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1947, the American government arrests her father, a Buddhist minister, as people come to fear anyone of Japanese descent, citizen or not. Her family is herded between various Japanese internment camps until the end of the war. This wreaks physical, emotional, and psychological havoc on Ruby, and she struggles to overcome her troubles as an adult.
Koji lives with his family in Hiroshima, a vibrant and bustling city in pre-war Japan. As tensions flare between Japan and the United States, his family, secretly anti-imperial, must sacrifice their well-being and livelihoods in service to the Japanese state. This includes food rationing, giving up any metal valuables to make firearms, and subjection to pro-Emperor propaganda. Koji and his family live their lives…until the horrific bombing on August 6, 1945. Afterwards, Koji, who has a secret of his own, must contend with issues of identity and familial loyalty in order to find success.
The story’s second half intertwines Ruby’s and Koji’s experiences. They meet and fall in love. Their relationship, however, does not come easily as the horrors they endured haunt them. It will take love, patience, resilience, acceptance, recognition, and forgiveness for the pair to find their happiness.
What an utterly breathtaking book! The dual perspectives reflect the primality of war, where fear grips everything in its steely jaws, threatening to mercilessly crush its prey. Ruby and Koji represent two sides of the Japanese experience during World War II, leading readers to reflect on the complexities of war and the dangers of blind prejudice as well as recognize that we all, consciously or unconsciously, harbor biases.
Additionally, the authors have drawn some of the most compelling and memorable characters I’ve ever read. Ruby is fierce, sometimes intransigent, but ever resilient; Koji remains eternally optimistic, even in the direst of circumstances. This juxtaposition offers plenty of conflict but also makes the resolution of their love all the more bittersweet and joyous.
Of White Ashes celebrates the human spirit and its incredible ability to endure, even in the worst of situations. It also cautions us to reflect on our own biases and prejudices to ensure that unlawful incarceration based on race never happens again. All in all, I highly anticipate this being one of my favorite books of the year.
Thank you to the authors, the publisher, and PR by the Book for a copy of this book!
Title: Of White Ashes
Author: Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto
Publisher: Apprentice House Press
Publication Year: 2023
Page Count: 388pp
Featured image: The remains of the former Industrial Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Pixabay/neil137)